Kiran Dass on seven years of revolution

“Fat c**t in a studded belt…” spits out Shayne Carter on the DoubleHappys’ song “Needles and Plastic”. Well, at least that’s what I like to think he’s saying. Someone once told me he’s actually just saying “fat gut in a studded belt” in such a manner that can be interpreted either way. “Needles and Plastic” is such a great song with its ringing guitars, Modern Lovers-style organ wheezing along to sharp, sardonic and socially observational commentary. It’s one of the best opening lines of a song ever and Canadian writer Matthew Goody has used it for the title of his epic book Needles & Plastic: Flying Nun Records, 1981-1988.

It was several years ago when I first heard Goody was writing this book. Firstly, we all wondered who he was. None of us had really heard of him. Secondly, a part of me sort of inwardly moaned to myself, “please, not another Flying Nun book” because there is plenty of other New Zealand underground music to write about that hasn’t really been covered before. And thirdly, the publishing date for this book kept changing so I didn’t really believe it was actually going to see the light of day. But I kept a close eye on things and began to get excited. Goody was clearly a proper music lover and maybe I’m biased but I liked that he seemed to like the same music as me. I loved the idea of the book focusing on a very specific period of Flying Nun’s output – the Christchurch years from the label’s inception in 1981 by Roger Shepherd to simply document the bands he liked rather than start a label to make a profit, to midway through 1988 before the label packed up north for Auckland. This is only a part of the label’s enduring 40-plus-year history, but I reckon it’s the best and most interesting period so thankfully the book bypasses later bands like Garageland and The D4.

Clocking in at over 400 pages, this large format, richly illustrated, meticulously researched (a real labour of love with a lot of care and attention to detail; it took Goody 10 years!) and lavishly produced tome is a headspinning thing of beauty. And it took me ages to read because it’s so hefty I couldn’t tote it to work to read during lunchbreaks and it’s too heavy to read in bed at night, but it’s so ravishing that I would hope lots of people get it for Xmas this year. Auckland University Press has done a stunning job with their customarily high production values. Lovely to see a thorough index and select bibliography, too.

This is more of a discographic history of the label as charted chronologically through the 7”’s, EPs and albums over this thrilling seven year period starting with The Clean’s 7” ‘Tally Ho!’ (FN 002) and ending with Bird Dog by The Verlaines (FN 077). Goody writes about the people behind the music, the social conditions under which it was made and shares the backstory of each release. This is refreshing to read than straight criticism. I read it chronologically, cover-to-cover because it’s so compelling and has a narrative arc which navigates the label’s progress with moments like entering the UK and European markets, navigating financial black holes, and hitting the States.

And as soon as I finished reading it, I started all over again, but this time only looking at, or “reading” the images. There are so many never-seen-before photographs that paint a vivid and evocative portrait of what these years were like. It’s jam-packed with artwork, posters, fliers, live band shots, photos of hetic practice and sitting rooms, group photos of bands on the road together (so many carefree, youthful and smiling faces) and fascinating ephemera. It’s amazing how many people documented and took photos during this time, and it’s a gift that they have generously shared these for the book. As Goody writes, it’s clear that Flying Nun had a roster of “comic-heads, art-class freaks and aspiring graphic designers” and here he illustrates the hotbed of burgeoning artistic talent with a DIY spirit.

Goody has a keen eye. When writing about the Bored Games EP Who Killed Colonel Mustard he describes the DIY cut and paste aesthetic of the cover where band member’s faces are stuck on Cluedo characters, noting the glob of Twink visible on Jonathan Moore’s face.

One of the striking things about reading Needles & Plastic is that it serves as a reminder and celebration of the absolute diversity of sound within the label. Forget about the reductive “Dunedin Sound” tag. You’ve got everything from the murky and menacing darkness of Scorched Earth Policy, the bright and melodic Sneaky Feelings, the abrasiveness of The Dead C, the glorious swirl of Look Blue Go Purple, the industrial Fetus Productions, the twang of The Bats. And even Netherworld Dancing Toys.

Chris Knox with the legendary producer Doug Hood (reflected) and his amazing dancing TEAC 4-track

There are bands I’d never even heard of: Vibraslaps (featuring the brilliant writer Gina Cole whose book Black Ice Matter is extraordinary), Crystal Zoom!, and The Eric Glandy Memorial Big Band. With a name like that I wasn’t  sure I’d want to listen to them;  I actually went and had a listen to the big band and it was horrible. As Goody writes, “A write-up in the label’s newsletter seemed just as perplexed as everyone else.” And quoting a review by Tony Green: “How a satirical country and western band got on the label, Shepherd only knows.”

Green’s reviews pop up often throughout the book, alongside those from The Press music reporter David Swift, and Goody draws from zines including Richard Langston’s Garage (I’m looking forward to the forthcoming Garage compendium Pull Down the Shades: Garage Fanzine 1984-86) which shows how much coverage Flying Nun artists received. I don’t think genuine Aotearoa underground music actually enjoys as much coverage in New Zealand these days.

The book is full of fascinating facts and stories. Swift was in the group Mainly Spaniards and Goody reveals that they got their unusual name when Swift plucked a list of band name options from newspaper articles. The one the band voted on came from a news piece about a bus crash in Madrid, Spain where the victims were “mainly Spaniards.”

Needles & Plastic is an attentive and generous book. I actually met up with Goody for the first time when I was in Vancouver recently, and his generosity was extended in an invitation to take me to some record shops. We drove around listening to Big Star and as he flicked through the bins he’d pull records out and find gems for me. If it wasn’t for him I would have missed a record by the Scrotum Poles.

His book is really a tribute to an imaginative and artistic community of people who made music with and shared music with friends. There have been so many tremendously great international DIY independent record labels: Postcard Records, Fast Product, Rough Trade, Factory Records, SST, New Hormones… and as Goody notes, Flying Nun too, in these heady, intoxicating years between 1981-1988 was “one of the greatest independent music labels in the world.”

Goody was the perfect person to write this book. Someone from the inside would likely be bogged down with either too much ego, false memory, or the weight of real or imagined past grievances. His unclouded and slight distance is an advantage here. But Goody isn’t really an outsider. He’s one of us.

Needles & Plastic: Flying Nun Records, 1981-1988 by Matthew Goody (Auckland University Press, $70) is available in bookstores nationwide.

In full-on trainspotter setting, Kiran has compiled “an entirely subjective listening list of my favourite songs from the releases Needles & Plastic covers, in no real order”, as follows.

Point That Thing Somewhere Else – The Clean

Coal Miner’s Song – The Gordons

Don’t Deceive Me – 25 Cents

Power – The Pin Group

Slug Song – The Clean

Bridesmaid – Bored Games

What’s Going On – Fetus Productions

Down And Around – The Stones

Alien – Builders

Born in the Wrong Time – The Great Unwashed

It’s Cold Outside – Victor Dimisich Band

Looking for the Sun – Children’s Hour

The Man Whose Head Expanded – The Fall

Patience – This Sporting Life

Throwing Stones – Sneaky Feelings

Words Fail Me – This Kind of Punishment

Immigration Song – This Kind of Punishment

I Go Wild – The Bats

Holy Room – The Rip

Hidden Bay – The Chills

The Brain that Wouldn’t Die – Tall Dwarfs

Arson – Scorched Earth Policy

Mekong Delta Blues – Scorched Earth Policy

This is the Way – The Chills

As Does the Sun – Look Blue Go Purple

Circumspect Penelope – Look Blue Go Purple

Needles and Plastic – DoubleHappys

Nerves – DoubleHappys

Anyone Else Would – DoubleHappys

Alien – Birds Nest Roys

Randolph’s Going Home – Shayne Carter & Peter Jefferies

Johnny Frog – Scorched Earth Policy

Flamethrower – The Chills

Flex – Jean Paul Sartre Experience

The Water – Goblin Mix

Billie & Franz – The Puddle

Spaceship #9 – The Puddle

Junk – The Puddle

The Great Escape – The Chills

The Ghost of Some Cold Street – Headless Chickens

Sonic Blue – The Max Block

Sour Queen – Able Tasmans

Lots of Hearts – Wreck Small Speakers on Expensive Stereos

Rain – Wreck Small Speakers on Expensive Stereos

Words Fail Me – This Kind of Punishment

House with a Hundred Rooms – The Chills

Dialling a Prayer – Straitjacket Fits

Thief with the Silver – Peter Jefferies & Jono Lonie

New Man – Nelsh Bailter Space

Speed Kills – Dead C

Batwing – The Terminals

Kiran Dass was convening judge of the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, and a winner of the 2021 Surrey Hotel-Newsroom writers residency award.

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